Endgame, Albery Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," opines Nell (a cadaverously comic Liz Smith), one of the pair of oldsters confined in dustbins in Endgame. At first, the remark sounds counterintuitive, like claiming that "there's nothing more comfortable than a seat in a West End theatre". But then one recalls all those occasions in life that flicker between howling tragedy and a pitch-black joke.

The announcement that Lee Evans was to star in Matthew Warchus's revival of Endgame also sounded a touch contradictory. But one remembers Samuel Beckett's fondness for silent screen comics: he actually directed Buster Keaton in the movie Film. And on the list of those who can be considered contemporary equivalents, the endearingly monkey-faced Evans ranks high. So is there a method in both kinds of madness?

You bet. This is a stunningly good production of Endgame that derives its power from the inspired pairing of the comedian Evans with Michael Gambon, a meaty giant of the legitimate stage. The evening begins and ends with a roll of drums and a clash of cymbals, and between them Warchus orchestrates an event that brilliantly draws on tones ranging from the knockabout of a cruelly handicapped vaudeville double-act to the tragic sonorities sparked between Lear and the Fool, and Prospero and Caliban.

The high, dingy minimalism of Rob Howell's fine design ushers us into a terminally depleted world where everything is running out (including painkillers) and where prospects could not be less rosy for the surviving foursome. Hobbling like a twisted marionette and babbling like a long-johned Irish loon, Evans, who here resembles a refugee from Ryan's Daughter, is intensely watchable and heart-snaggingly hilarious as Clov, the crippled servant (and possibly son) of Hamm, the blind, wheelchair-bound tyrant.

Gambon, as Hamm, splutters his flights of lofty, self-absorbed rhetoric as if through disintegrating dentures, magnificently projecting both the puffed-up, barnstorming luvvie aspects of the part and the sense that this despot understands - at some deeply desperate level - the exorbitant cost of his callousness. He and Evans create a rapport that manages to be robustly rancorous, yet suggestive of subtle depths. The end-of-the-tether and end-of-the-pier merge in ideal proportions also in Geoff Hutchings' brilliantly timed performance as the father Nagg, up to his neck in both a bin and senile anecdotage.

It was decided to set the play not on one of the many last, lingering days of this morbidly symbiotic scenario, but on the very last. It could have resulted in sentimentality, especially when Clov, dressed for outdoors, stands with head bowed in almost tender respect as he prepares to make what looks like a definitive exit. Yet if this Endgame made me cry (which it did) as well as laugh out loud, it was because the production and the amazing Evans stopped well short of lachrymose indulgence. A wonderful evening.

Booking to 24 April (020-7369 1740)

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